When my parents got married, became believers, and had children, they agreed that they didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of their own parents. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all good people, but they didn’t understand how to build relational connection.
My father’s family was so disconnected growing up that by the time my parents had us,we only saw his twin brother every four to five years. My dad had to fight for acquaintanceship with both his brothers and initiate a “State of the Union” call with them once a year.
My mother’s mom was a divorced single mother, and was more focused on survival than connection with my mom and her sister. As a result, my mom became extremely independent. From age twelve, she was more of an adult than a kid.
My parents’ commitment to raise their children with nurture and connection became much deeper after the loss of their second child. They valued my sister Jennifer and me in a profound way, found great joy in us, and built connection with us in several important ways. I have another awesome sister, Cindy who is 11 years older than me and also benefited by my parent’s choices, I just didn't get to see their parenting in action the same way with her.
CONNECTION KEY #1: Create Space and Time and Be Ritualistic About It!
First, my parents built family rituals into the flow of our lives. We celebrated holidays together, spent Saturdays as family days, did a Bible study together once a week, and had family Fridays where we would eat together and go to the movies, or invite friends over to watch movies at home and spend the night. Our friends often told us they liked our family more than their own, and some all but lived with us.
I actually don’t remember many of our times together as a family, but I remember always feeling connected to my parents and sister. During my awkward preteen and teen years, I occasionally pulled away from connection with my parents. However, they didn’t reciprocate. They continued to keep the momentum of ritual and sharing space and time together. As a result, when I didn’t want to share with them what I was going through, they could feel it, and I could feel that they could feel it. Eventually, I was compelled to share because of how involved I felt they were in my heart process.
The time we spent together made sure they never felt foreign to my process or life journey. Rather, they were narrators in it. Many of our normal get-together times turned into deep conversations that just wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t established consistent time together.
I once read a psychology book on family, which affirmed how important ritual is in celebrating holidays or sharing dinners at the table. Routine connection helps to keep family members present in each other’s lives for the more important moments. This is truer today than ever before. For many families, their only intentional quality time is spent driving to soccer practice or going to church. In doing so, they risk losing the hearts of their children. Parents must intentionally and deliberately set aside time with their children for no other purpose than to say, “You are my priority and I am spending time to prove it. I won’t compromise the quality and or quantity of this time. Because we do life together, we will share life together.”
CONNECTION KEY #2: Vulnerability
I can still remember a conversation my mom had with Jennifer and me when we were about seven and nine.
“I am realizing that my mom didn’t know how to discipline me at all, so she just would express anger and frustration and yell, hoping I would change,” she told us. “I don’t want to do that with you guys, but I feel like I am repeating her model sometimes. I really want God to change me. I am going to read some books and work on learning how to discipline the healthy way.”
My sister and I were comforted by our mother sharing her process with us. She was a great mom, but like any human, she had weaknesses, and this one had been blaring in our faces.
She then asked us, “What is something God is showing you that you need to change?”
In my case, I knew that I had been lying a lot. After seeing my mom be vulnerable and brave with us, I admitted this to her.
Instead of being mad at me, she said, “I am so proud of you. We all know you have been lying about some things, but for you to admit that and want to change is awesome! Let’s do this!”
Mom modeled that she wasn’t afraid to be in a process in her journey, or to confess that great big parts of her were still under construction. She didn’t mind our process either.
My dad modeled the same kind of vulnerability. When I was eleven years old, some friends and I discovered pornography on a trail in the back woods. I immediately ran home and told my dad all about it. What eleven-year-old does that? One who cherishes their relationship! I knew he wouldn’t be mad, and I knew he would teach me about what just happened.
My father was so vulnerable about his own process with pornography and what it does in a man’s life. He told me about a season in which he had looked at pornography and how it had made him feel distant from my mom. He then explained to me that as men, we are called to protect women, and that I needed to see those women for who they really are.
“What if they were your mom or sister?” he asked me. “Wouldn’t you be mad at people for looking at them that way? These women may not have value for themselves, but you can sure protect them by not objectifying them.”
That may sound pretty intense for an eleven-year-old, but hearing his journey was so powerful to me! I was deeply motivated to learn from his mistakes and his heart, and made healthy choices in that area from that point on. To this day, I have never had a porn addiction in my life.
Kids want to do better than their parents, whom they idolize. And when their parents have their hearts, they want to protect their parents at all costs. Connected children often don’t repeat the mistakes of their parents because they feel connected to the learning journey that has enabled their parents to overcome. As a matter of fact, connected kids often don’t struggle with addictions, social anxiety, purpose depression, or relational loneliness.
CONNECTION KEY #3: Teaching Heart Communication
My parents made sure to teach my sister and me how to share our hearts by modeling it themselves and asking us questions that invited us to respond in the same way.
Here are some of the questions that were just normal for our family: “What is God doing with you? What is going on in your heart? What are some things you are growing in? What’s going on in relationships right now? What do you love about life? What do you like about your skills and talents? What teachers do you like and why? What’s the hardest thing about life right now?”
My parents started asking these deep questions when I was so little, I can barely remember not being asked them. They listened intently and enjoyed hearing our answers. We weren’t just kids with kid answers to them. We were the most valuable humans in their eyes, and we felt it.
They also let us ask plenty of questions of our own and explore opinions that differed from theirs. They were patient with us when they disagreed and didn’t get mad at us for exploring issues. My sister and I both had very strong opinions. Some people would have called us strong-willed, but my parents just thought of us as passionate.
They also didn’t have a know-it-all attitude. My mom was hilarious when we were teenagers and would ask her sexual questions. A lot of times she wouldn’t know the answers and would say, “When you find out, please tell me!” We actually talked about sex a lot with our parents, because they willingly pushed past the awkwardness and shared. They knew if they didn’t define these things in our journey, then someone else would.
Between the ages of twelve and fourteen I went through the natural process of forming my own identity apart from my parents (individuation). However, because of our lifelong habit of sharing heart-to-heart, we stayed connected through that time. They continued to ask me deep questions and wait for me to share the things that were happening in my heart.
Creating and Maintaining Connection Is the Most Rewarding Challenge of a Parent
As someone who grew up connected to my parents, I am finding that one of my greatest joys is being present with my own daughters and creating that connection with them. From the time she turned two, my oldest daughter has often told my wife and me that her favorite times are dates with us. She loves going to the coffee shop with me or Cherie, getting hot chocolate, and connecting heart-to-heart. Most of the time it is just “cute and sweet” time, but more and more, a profound question that is defining to who she is comes up. In those moments, we are present and connected enough to be the ones who get to answer it.
My parents are some of my best friends now. People ask me who mentored me or who my spiritual parents are, and I always tell them it is my parents. Some repeat the question multiple times because they don’t believe me. Apparently, almost no one ever answers that their parents are the ones who nurtured or discipled them. However, it is not only possible; it is the assignment God has entrusted to you. Your job is to create connection, and your kids’ job will be to maintain it with you!
Remember, God dreamed of your children for millions of years before they were ever alive. He had a perfect plan of how to make them the best version of themselves and then chose you to parent them. He knew that within you would be the skill set, the nurture, and the vision to help your child connect to who they are, and to the world around them.
You can do it!